Content: Not Always King

There has been a lot of discussion over the last year around content strategy, the discipline of analyzing, managing, planning, and focusing content, particularly on the web. This is a good thing, as we’re nearly two decades into the commercial web and many organizations have built up a huge, unconsidered blob of content that needs to be sorted out.

Content strategy is all well and good, of course, but it has brought with it the rallying cry of “Content First!” and a million articles about how “Content is King.” Content is king…except when it’s not.

Broadly speaking, there is a continuum of products from those that are content-rich to those that don’t contain any “content” (aside from semantic) at all. CNN.com on one side, a spoon on the other. If we exclude those products that don’t deal with content at all (and there are a significant number of those), we’re left with products that are about content consumption on one side of the continuum, and products that are about content creation and manipulation on the other. TiVo on one side, Microsoft Office on the other. In the middle are products like Flickr or Twitter, which are about the distribution of content, and include a blend of creation and consumption.

The strategy you adopt when tackling a project needs to take this continuum in mind. If your product is about content consumption, content is king and you should do due diligence and start from a content strategy perspective. Users of those products are coming to be informed or entertained and need the content to be front-and-center; the product is in service to displaying the content in as appropriate a manner as possible. The meaning of the content matters; you wouldn’t display a cartoon the same way you’d display an analysis of the stock market. At least, not usually.

But on the other end of the continuum, on the content creation and manipulation side, you do yourself a disservice by focusing on the content and not instead on the activities people need to perform with the content. Of course, you can’t dismiss the type of content that is being worked with. To record and edit a video clip requires different tasks than creating a presentation or spreadsheet. But for content creation products, interaction with the content is king, not the content itself. Unlike products about content consumption, the meaning of the content doesn’t much matter. I can create a Word document about the Holocaust just as I would about how to play snooker. The activities supported are the same.

Obviously, there is nuance to this: Hollywood movies aren’t put together the same way your home movies are, but for the most part, content is not king, because it’s not about the information/data/story that is being conveyed, but about how that content, whatever it is, is being made and adjusted. Content is a type of container into which meaning can be poured. (Of course, the created pieces of content can then be placed into a product for content consumption, the same way this article (written on Ecto, a desktop text editor and thus a content creation product) will eventually be placed on the Kicker Studio blog (a product for content consumption).

If, with content strategy, you begin with a content analysis to figure out what raw materials you have to work with, with products for content creation you should start with an understanding of the feature set, what activities need to be designed for so that a correct interaction model can be designed. Begin with a feature (task) analysis that always asks, Why do we need this feature? in the same way the the best content strategy asks Why does this need to be published?

So before you immediately jump to Content First!, ask yourself, what is the role of content in this product: is the content filled with meaning to be consumed, a social object, or a container for meaning? How you answer that question is the first step in determining what approach to take when designing a product that deals with content, and whether or not Content is King.